A Conversation with Boris Worm, Marine Biologist + Shark Advocate

© Shawn Heinrichs

As we highlighted in yesterday’s post, "5 Things You Didn’t Know Sharks Do For You,” people owe a lot to the oceans’ biggest fish. Due to current rates of shark exploitation, they should be more scared of us than we are of them — but what we should fear is what could happen if they disappear.

Scientist Dr. Boris Worm studies marine biodiversity in order to advance understanding of their status, the consequences of their disappearance and potential conservation solutions. He is also the lead author of a recent international study on the worldwide decline of sharks, which was widely publicized via this popular infographic. Today he catches up with Human Nature.

Q: How did you first become interested in sharks?

A: I am interested in all marine life, but became very aware of the special plight of sharks when co-authoring a 2003 paper in Science called “Collapse and Conservation of Shark Populations in the Northwest Atlantic.” Since then, it has become increasingly clear to me that there are few other marine species that are as threatened as the sharks are.

Q: In your years of research, what has been your most important discovery about sharks?

A: The most important discovery was that sharks all over the world seemed to be sharing a similar fate of declining numbers — in some cases dramatically so. We recently estimated that at least 100 million sharks are killed a year, and showed that this is substantially higher mortality than what sharks as a group can biologically sustain.

Q: What do you think of Shark Week?

A: I have never seen this (don’t own a TV), but I am concerned that sharks are still largely portrayed as dangerous and fearsome.

Q: Are there any shark conservation projects that you find to be particularly successful or inspiring?

A: I am particularly impressed by shark sanctuaries. I think this is precisely what is needed to restore depleted populations.

Q: What can the average person do to support shark conservation?

A: Get educated. Learn more about the sharks in your region. Speak up against practices that harm or kill sharks. Support protected areas.

There are many species that are still extremely poorly known. I recently suggested that we need a new generation of organismal biologists or citizen scientists to help with the collection and compilation of facts about these species. So many species are still under the radar. This is even more true for skates and rays, which are closely related to sharks but don’t enjoy the same profile. I am very concerned about these species as well.

Molly Bergen is the managing editor of Human Nature. Boris Worm is a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.